- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

THE MAN WHO BROKE NAPOLEON'S CODES
By Mark Urban
HarperCollins, $25.95,348 pages, illus., maps


Introducing Gen. Arthur Wellesley, later duke of Wellington, Mark Urban has this to say: "One cannot think of a person less in tune with the emotional openness and social inclusiveness of our own time, but his results were spectacular … "
A few pages further into his absorbing history, Mr. Urban cites the tension at the general's headquarters between aristocrats and "'scientific soldiers' skilled in preparing orders, mapmaking and languages," with the balance of power on the side of the aristocrats. He recalls the obligation to subservience of one Royal Military College graduate even writing in his own private journal when a mistake made by Wellesley resulted in 3,000 soldiers losing their lives through illness.
At Oporto in northern Portugal in May of 1809, Wellesley missed his chance to mop up a 20,000-strong French army under Marshal Nicolas Soult. Col., later Maj. Gen., John Le Marchant, who had helped found the Royal Military College and was not so willing to kowtow, wrote of the occasion despairingly:
"It is well understood by the Government of the Country that intelligent officers are necessary to an efficient army, and that it is alone a well organized Etat Major [General Staff] who can lead large bodies of troops to victory. How can we be so absurd as to oppose [sic] that, neglecting as we do all instruction and the aid of science in our military enterprises, we are to be victorious over troops that possess those advantages in the highest degree of perfection."
Le Marchant, a legendary cavalry commander as students of the Peninsular War against Napoleon's several armies in Portugal and Spain know, later was killed at Salamanca with his son, a young captain under his command, present on the battlefield. (Le Marchant Barracks in the market and garrison town of Devizes long was the depot of the Wiltshire Regiment.)
And Le Marchant represented the new scientifically-minded kind of army officer. This was not what Arthur Wellesley was. On the contrary, he preferred the company of aristocrats, was a Tory (later Tory prime minister) and disdainful of anyone who displayed intellectual self-confidence. Such was the climate prevailing among his headquarters staff when George Scovell, a former engraver's apprentice and deputy assistant quartermaster general with the rank only of captain after many years' service, sought to bring himself to the attention of the great man.
Scovell had dreamed of being a cavalry commander and held a commission in the 4th Dragoons for a dozen years before having to sell it he couldn't afford the expenses; officers then were paid very little and required to spend a lot and transferred into the 57th Foot, a significant loss in status. He had a wife, Mary, whom he loved very much, but in one instance they had three weeks together after which Scovell was gone for three years. He had been in the Peninsular War from the start, participating in the ignominious retreat to Corunna and Dunkirk-like taking off of the British force after the cavalry had been obliged to shoot 3,000 of their much loved horses. Of the infantry Mr. Urban records:
"They had marched out of Portugal the cream of the British army, mainly first battalions of its finest regiments. Now their scarlet uniforms were stained and patched, bodies crawling with lice, bellies empty and eyes sunk in their sallow faces. Scovell noted in his journal, 'Never did so sudden an alteration take place in men, they were now a mere rabble, marching in groups of 20 or 30 each, looking quite broken hearted, and worn out, many without shoes or stockings.'"
Well, as the world knows a new expedition under Wellesley was put on the Iberian peninsula some months later, and over the course of the next six years drove the French from Portugal and Spain, defeating one French marshal at a time after contriving (with the help of the new intelligence reports) to keep them from ganging up on the British who were for most of the time outnumbered. During these years, Scovell, who had long been fascinated by codes and ciphers became, for all his commander's distaste toward brainy men of undistinguished birth and no property, Wellesley/Wellington's director of communications. Come the battle of Waterloo in June of 1815 he was still on the job.
Mr. Urban is a former army officer, a journalist and a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation's "Newsnight." His subject, George Scovell, has been almost completely neglected by history, Mr. Urban coming across a mention of "The Scovell Ciphers" in an appendix to volume V of "History of the Peninsular War" by Sir Charles Oman.
Scovell deserves our respect today on any number of grounds. First, as an officer of no social pretensions, he expected to and always did work twice as hard as the better-born and usually younger men around him to achieve any recognition. Second, he was ready to his general's hand exactly when he was needed most. The escape of Soult and his army had been the consequence of a horrible intelligence snafu at Wellesley's headquarters.
Third, the French, who were much more committed to the scientific approach to soldiering, were at that point getting into "secret writing" in a big way and the complexity of their ciphers, starting from the relatively easy to crack 150-number cipher, became enormously complex over the course of the war rising to a 1,400-number cipher called the Grand Cipher with one set of tables for enciphering and another for deciphering. Mr. Urban explains the codes in considerable detail for the reader who is willing and able to try and get the hang of them. I, to be truthful, didn't quite have the patience.
Scovell, on the other hand, sat up nights while performing other duties during the daytime gradually unraveling these codes, armed with his excellent grasp of French syntax and grammar. Early in the war, he had formed and led a company of guides and these along with the Spanish guerrillas proved of the first importance in intercepting messages between commanders of the various French armies in Spain and between them and the militarily ineffectual King Joseph Bonaparte in Madrid.
Still, it was a race against clock and calendar, and Wellesley's patience was far from unlimited. At one point he sent some of the coded French materials to London to be worked on, but the code breakers there were unable to make ground as quickly as Scovell could working alone. The eventual breakthrough for Scovell came around the time of the attack on Cuidad Rodrigo in January of 1812, a moment that for Wellesley too proved a turning point in the war.
Scovell lived until 1861. Wellington, despite his promise of gratitude to the army of the Peninsula, seems not to acted at all thoughtfully in the postwar years toward those who had served him best, selfishly pursuing his new career in politics; the duke was by many accounts a most uncaring man. Scovell, put on the half-pay list in 1818, was reduced to writing to his old commander for help, and fortunately, one notable aristocrat among the duke's "boys," Fitzroy Somerset (later Lord Raglan) and a lifelong friend to Scovell, was by then secretary of state for war.
Maj. Gen. Sir George Scovell was made lieutenant governor of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and granted the colonelcy of first the 7th Dragoons and then the 4th Dragoons, the regiment from which he had been obliged to retire many years earlier with his tail between his legs.
Mr. Urban's handsome volume is well supplied with illustrations of principal actors, battle scenes, the French codes and maps, though the text is occasionally repetitive, something with which a good editor could have helped. There are endnotes for the scholarly and an index. The book makes thrilling reading about a war that never ceases to interest and a man and an aspect of the Peninsular War of which few people know much. Scovell was the father of modern code breaking.
At the same time, Mr. Urban could hardly help but give us another portrait of the duke, for as in life he tends to overshadow all around him. In this depiction the interest lies in seeing one of the greatest of military commanders when he was not always at his best, for example at the siege of Badajoz with the nighttime assault on the brink of failing, as reported by Sir James McGrigor: "The jaw had fallen, and the face was of unusual length, while the torchlight gave his countenance a lurid aspect." But in sum, as Mr. Urban began by saying, Wellington's results were spectacular, and George Scovell had something to do with that.



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